Army Corps suspends Lake O releases; Protest on river decries algae issues

Michael Braun
The News-Press
John G. Heim of the South Florida Clean Water  Movement pours out a bottle of Caloosahatchee River water he collected at the Franklin lock and dam\, showing the presence of blue-green algae.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Miami, spoke and now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is listening.

Rubio sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an emergency re-evaluation of water flows from Lake Okeechobee currently entering the Caloosahatchee River.

Rubio's request came as protesters gathered along the river at the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva on Sunday decrying the putrid, green algae slick that has formed along the river in places. Samples of the pea soup-colored water collected at the lock were earmarked for Washington.

Part of Rubio's announcement also asked the Corps to reconsider discharges to the St. Lucie River, which were set to recommence Monday, and re-evaluate the flows entering the Caloosahatchee. 

Sunday evening, the Corps decided to suspend flows from Lake Okeechobee.

“After speaking with the Administration earlier today, I’m thankful that the Army Corps has listened to our concerns for communities downstream and announced it will delay Monday's scheduled discharges,” Rubio said in a statement. “While this is just a temporary reprieve, it is a sign of a newly responsive federal government. South Florida faces major water issues that must be addressed. We have a plan in place that will help alleviate these issues, now we need the federal government to join Florida in investing the resources for CERP as quickly as possible.”

Rubio also asked that the administration double the federal investment in Everglades restoration infrastructure through the president’s fiscal year 2020 budget request.


"For the third time in five years, harmful algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee, coupled with the water management practices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, serve as a major cause for concern for downstream residents," Rubio wrote. "I respectfully urge you to use your authority to order the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to immediately include the impacts of harmful algal blooms and poor water quality on downstream communities and ecosystems as a major factor for consideration when planning and conducting Lake Okeechobee discharges."

On Sunday, as part of the protest on the algae issue, John G. Heim repeatedly dunked his yellow rubber-gloved hand into the murkiness of the Caloosahatchee as he gathered samples of water containing the blue-green algae bloom that has beset much of the river this summer.

John G. Heim of the South Florida Clean Water  Movement collects a bottle of Caloosahatchee River water at the Franklin lock and dam, where a mat of blue-green algae has formed.

"Obviously, we have a problem here," Heim said.

The activist and member of South Florida Clean Water Movement was taking the sample at the end of the protest. 

About 35 people came to the east Lee County park where the dam is located to show their support for a state of emergency that state legislators representing Lee County have asked Gov. Rick Scott to declare. That request was made because of the threat the algae and a persistent red tide bloom pose to the area's economy and waterways.

In 2016, when a similar bloom plagued the southern part of the state, the governor declared an emergency that helped facilitate loans for 54 businesses statewide claiming harm. Twelve were in Lee County.

Also at issue is a patchy bloom of the Florida red tide organism, Karenia brevis, that continues to be a factor in Southwest Florida.

According to state wildlife testing, over the past week, the organism was observed at background to high concentrations in samples collected from or offshore of Sarasota County, low to high concentrations in samples collected from or offshore of Charlotte County, background to high concentrations in samples collected from or offshore of Lee County, and background to medium concentrations in samples collected from or offshore of Collier County.

"This needs to be fixed before it becomes too bad," said Katelyn Collier of Fort Myers, a rising sophomore at Cypress Lake High School. Katelyn came with her mother, Bernadette Collier, because they felt the issue needed their support.

More:These Southwest Florida beaches remain clean and free of blue-green algae, red tide

More:Lee County legislators ask Gov. Rick Scott to declare state of emergency because of algae problem

More:Algae causing Lee County legislation to ask for state of emergency

"I'm doing it for my daughter," Bernadette Collier said. "So she'll have something left."

Donna Hughes came from the Venice area to support the protest. She and her husband just moved to Southwest Florida from Massachusetts.

"We just sold a home in Cape Cod and bought a home in Venice," she said. "When we started to smell the dead fish we started going online to investigate. We decided to get involved. We moved here for the boating and fishing. Right now we can't do either."

For Heim, the foul-smelling sheen that has gathered along the river is not acceptable.

"This is an ecological disaster, or close to it," he said. "This is our BP oil spill."

After gathering a half-dozen or so bottles of the greenish water Heim said he would be giving samples to senators and congressmen.

'We're going to take them personally to Washington D.C. on July 25," he said. "And give these people the actual truth of what's going on here."

Heim said he has also been invited to speak before a task force on the water issue in Washington on July 24-26.

When the Corps steps up Lake Okeechobee releases down the river, the Caloosahatchee gets huge doses of nitrogen and phosphorous in that extra water, and just as those elements can green up a lawn, so too with algae.

Katelyn Collier, a sophomore at Cypress Lake High School, came to the Franklin lock and dam on the Caloosahatchee River on Sunday to protest conditions that have led to the formation of blue-green algae.

"The (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) needs to come up with a better solution," Heim said.

When viewing the floating mats of algae that coated the east side of the lock on Sunday, Heim said he gets ill, sad and feels defeated.

"But, I'm encouraged to fight stronger at the same time," he said. "We all need to step up. What exactly is happening here is we're being ignored."

The algae are also a health hazard. Fumes given off as the bacteria die can cause health issues for some, specifically respiratory. Many who came to protest Sunday wore surgical-style masks to try to cut the smell coming off the water.

"This is a human health concern," Heim said. "Just on the other side of the lock the Corps has decided to keep the swimming area open again."

More:Calusa Waterkeeper outlines dangers of toxic algal blooms

Cyanobacteria blooming in the Caloosahatchee are from a strain, Microcystin, that's known to promote tumor growth and liver cancer and has been associated with a protein linked to Parkinson's, ALS and Alzheimer disease, experts said. 

The bloom in the Caloosahatchee started about two weeks ago in the upper stretches of the river and has since worked its way to downtown Fort Myers and Cape Coral. 

The blooms area health issues for people on and around the river, and are a particular problem for pets and practically any animals that comes in contact with them. 

Connect with this reporter: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook) @MichaelBraunNP (Twitter). The News-Press reporters Amy Williams and Chad Gillis contributed to this report.